travel story

Tennessee and Mammoth Cave Revisited

Tennessee and Mammoth Cave Revisited

(Pictured: Passage within Mammoth Caves National Park,

Now that we’re back home and I can safely post this on the Net–

I previously wrote about trips to Tennessee here and Mammoth Cave here.  Not much to add on to what I wrote before–it was too hot last week to do much of anything of interest in Tennessee, especially with a carsick boy, so we just hung around with family–but I’ve wanted to see Mammoth Cave again for years.

We did go to Dolly Parton’s Stampede.  We were crammed in and had to eat with our fingers, but the food (while messy) was good.  On the other side of the theater was an Amish family and a huge group of foreign exchange students.  I wondered what they thought about the end of the show, an over-the-top light show celebrating the Fourth of July at a time when Trump is giving the USA a black eye.  But hey, they wanted to come here, so maybe they were fine with it.  Anyway, with all the bluegrass and country music and hillbilly kitsch in those parts, I hope I won’t lose my Goth card.  😉  But it was the grandparents’ idea, so maybe not.  🙂  And there were horses!

One thing I noted and found odd: In Knoxville by a mall, there was a prayer tent set up in the parking lot.  A prayer tent?  In the parking lot?  At the mall?  Is this a new Southern thing? (I never saw this in trips to the South in the 80s.)

We thought about going all the way to Chattanooga, and I badly wanted to see Lookout Mountain again after some 30+ years.  But with last week’s brutal heat and a boy who got sick just from an hour-long ride squished in the back of the grandparents’ car, that wasn’t going to work.  But our last-minute thought of visiting Mammoth Cave–that worked out.

I don’t remember a lot of what the park around Mammoth Cave was like 30 years ago.  Was there a big visitor center before?  I don’t know.  Was the Spelunkers Café there before?  Heck if I remember.  Were there so many people there from other countries (especially Asian), or Amish?  (What crowds!)  Did they have a bunch of cute little cabins (with electricity!)?

I do know they now have excavated more than 300 miles and still feel they won’t finish in our lifetimes.  And I’m pretty sure the cars and vans were a lot boxier and there were more perms and mullets.

Hey, I’m just glad I can still fit through the tiny spaces on the Historic Tour, and could handle the entire tour without dying.  I even did better than the hubby.  Working out is doing some good, though after all these years I still don’t have my girlish figure back.  (I said good-bye to that shortly after my son was born.  A pity, because if I did all this work back in my 20s, I probably would soon be skinny.)

The Historic Tour seems to have changed a bit.  I don’t remember hearing the same stories we got last time (though it’s hard to be sure because some of us got far behind in the tiny spaces), and I think some of the fixtures changed.  Below, I mention a tower with winding stairs; now it was more of a metal mesh staircase with a bunch of landings.  But at the end of the two-hour tour, only two miles but “moderately strenuous,” I thought, “What?  That’s it?  We’re done?  Again!  Again!”

At the beginning of the tour, I saw “L– So. Bend” among the historic signatures all over the walls.  I asked my brother, but he can’t remember if he put that there, and I can’t ask my dad anymore.  So I guess the world will never know if that’s my brother’s signature, or somebody from the 1800s.

The disappointing bit is learning that the Echo River tours were discontinued 25 years ago for environmental reasons.  I was last there 30 years ago, and we were supposed to go on the river, but they cancelled all water tours for the day because the power was out.  So I had one chance–ONE!–to go on Echo River and see the eyeless fish, but never will again.  *sigh*  And, unfortunately, I think I will never be able to go on the Wild Cave Tour.  I’d still like to, but time has taken its toll in various ways.

As for taking one tape with me and getting sick of it by the end of the trip–That certainly changed.  Now I have an MP3 player loaded with nearly 400 songs, and a car to plug it into, which entertained us all the way to Tennessee and back again with good Goth and Industrial music, and no repeats!

Here’s what happened the last time I went to Mammoth Cave, 30 years ago as a teenager.  By the way, my post on this actually got some attention several years ago when somebody found it and posted on a forum, “See?  I wasn’t imagining the story about the guy banging rocks together!” :

I wrote this to a penpal back in 1988, as a sophomore in high school:

During August, my parents, my brother L– and I went to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

I went with my dad and brother to Mammoth Cave, but my mom stayed at the hotel because she’d gone through there before in 1965 (as did my brother and dad), and, since she hadn’t dressed properly for the cold down there–my dad was the only one in the tour group with pants on instead of shorts–she got sick.

(When it was my turn to go in this cave, which I’d heard so much about that it seemed legendary, I wore pants.)

Back then, the longest tour was somewhere around six, seven, eight hours.  Now it was only four and a half hours, unless you wanted to go on the “Wild Cave” Tour: I think that was six hours long, and it was one where they gave the people equipment and they’d pretend they were explorers.  (I’d like to go on that one sometime.)

The electricity in the cave is powered by two companies, one in Indiana, but when we were there, it wasn’t working in the Indiana Company’s part of the cave.  Most of the Half-Day (4 1/2-hour) Tour was in that part, so we had to stand outside in the heat for a very long time, waiting for the previous group to come back with the lanterns.

But, during that time, there was the oddest coincidence: During my freshman year at school, I had two best friends, and one of them–Jennifer–was on the very same tour I was on!  Neither of us even knew the other was going to be there!

Finally, we could go in the cave and cool off.  There were a lot of stairs to go down.  I’d brought a pocket flashlight I’d bought at church camp, which came in useful now.

(With at least two tour groups being shoved together for the tour, there was a shortage of lanterns, and anyone with a flashlight was encouraged to use it and lead a smaller group.  Of course, my flashlight was hardly big enough to lead a group with, so I didn’t say anything about it to the tour guide.)

After a while we reached the Snowball Dining Room and had lunch, chili if you wanted it (I had something else since I don’t like chili), then went into the next room and sat for an extremely long time.  It turned out to be cold in there, so our guide told us we should go back in the Snowball Room where it was warmer.

Some of us went in there, and the guide from the next group came up to us and said we should go in the other room because another group was going to come in.  Some people in our group started laughing; the other group’s guide asked, “Why are you laughing?” and someone said, “Our guide just told us to come in here.”

For a while during our wait in the other room, I had a chance to talk with Jennifer.  Before that, and maybe after, I talked with Dad about the link between the Great Flood and how the room looked like it was carved by water–which it was, as the guide later told us.

It was decided that the rest of the Half-Day Tour groups would join our group.  Our guide told us about the forks in the trail ahead and how easy it was to get lost.

He said that, usually, he could joke about how one person could go the wrong way and have forty people following, but now it could be a hundred (or maybe even 120, I don’t remember now), and it wouldn’t be so funny.

The guide was asked if anyone ever got lost in the cave, and he told about when a man, before there was electricity in the cave, left his new hat in the Snowball Room, and the guide let him go back and get it.  When he was going back to the group, he missed the turn and started going the wrong way–then his lantern went out.

He was lost for 39 hours!  They found him after he started pounding two rocks together.  They thought he was smart to signal the search party like that, but they found out the total silence–since Mammoth Cave makes no sound–had begun to get to him, so he pounded the rocks so there would be some noise.

As we went deeper and deeper into the cave, we could look up and see colossal walls on either side.  Some people were given candles, so now we had three or four flashlights, some lanterns and candles.  (I just remembered: One lantern had set on fire outside.)

I thought it was more fun without electricity.  Once or twice only a few of us were in front, and the others were so far behind we thought they were lost.

If I remember right, someone screamed when they saw one of the cave-dwelling animals or insects.  Along the way we saw a cave insect, and, in one room, we divided into groups to look for more.  We found at least one.

Some time later there were huge depressions on either side of the trail, and large rocks, which were in such positions that they looked like they would fall any second, were in the depressions, and one could see where part of the roof caved in when the cave was being formed–but it looked as if the cave-in had just occurred in the past few minutes!  One of the rocks in precarious positions was holding the roof up.

We reached a place with restrooms, and we found out those lights weren’t working either, so someone put a lantern in the girl’s restroom.

At one spot, we sat down on benches that were on either side of a trail with depressions on both sides.  Where I was, the bench tilted backwards, so I was uneasy until we all stood up again.  (L– noticed a heavily overweight woman panting and fanning herself here.)

There are so many steps in that cave, and we went up and down a lot of them.  We went down some more to see some formations, then came back up.  I believe the lights were on there.  Soon after, the tour was over.  Only my feet wanted to leave; they ached so much.

That “Half-Day” Tour turned out, for us, to be over five hours long.  People were joking that we should be given T-shirts saying, “I survived the 5-hour Half-Day Tour.”  I was disappointed when we came to the part where the lights were on, though as soon as they saw it some people cheered.

My dad, brother and I were going to go on the Echo River Tour the next morning, but all the water-tours were cancelled because the lights had gone out.  So Dad and I went on the Historic Tour, and heard from someone on that tour how he and a group were on the river when the lights went out.

On the Historic Tour, we, of course, went in the Historic Entrance.  All the lights were on in the part of the cave where this was.  Once, the lights were deliberately turned off, and we were told to be very still and just listen to the total silence: Mammoth Cave makes no sound at all, as I said before.

Then the guide took a kerosene torch and threw it on a ledge high above us, to light up the roof.  She said that a family of rats lived up there, and when they were “at home” they’d push the torch back off the ledge.  They weren’t home.

She also said a “fire and brimstone” preacher in the olden days liked to preach to his congregation here, where they felt close to Hell.  It was also used for mining at one time.

By the Bottomless Pit–which is 105 feet deep–is a tower-like thing that we climbed up–and up–using stairs.  (The stairs curved around and around the tower.)  It seemed to me to be just as high as the Bottomless Pit is deep.

On the way to and from Kentucky, I played Amy Grant’s Lead Me On tape, which I had just gotten, on my Walkman because it was the only tape I brought.  I played it as Dad drove down a road in a wooded area and then turned the car around because we were going the wrong way.  (We were close to the cave by then.)  By the end of the trip, I was tired of it.  I gave it a rest, and eventually was able to listen to it again.

Mom and Dad had told me the story of Mammoth Cave for years before this.  Mom had to carry my other brother La– (my brothers were that young), and L– ate too many hot dogs and got sick of them for life.  I think he eventually was able to eat them again, when he was grown up.


2011 Trip to Tennessee–Land of the Appalachians: Repost

For most of the last week (August 4-9, 2011), my husband Cugan, my son Daniel and I were in Knoxville, Tennessee visiting Cugan’s parents.  This is the travelogue:

Day 1:

We are now down in Tennessee visiting Cugan’s parents.  Daniel got his first ride on a plane yesterday, but hated it: First our flight was so delayed that we couldn’t possibly make our connection, so we were switched to a different flight.  Then they switched us back with a different connection, but we’d lost our seats–and ended up in steerage, next to the engine, no window, but tons of racket.  Made my travel-migraine much worse, our stomachs went up and down with the plane–just awful. 😛

But the second plane was much better, right behind first class, very little airsickness, and Daniel got to watch out a window as the nighttime lights fell away below us…and the moon rose….

The layover was also much better than originally planned.  We originally had only an hour to get through the massive Atlanta airport, not enough time for dinner.  That airport is lots bigger than the one in Milwaukee, requiring trains to get from one concourse to another.  But this time, we got to have dinner and recover from our airsickness in the cool AC.

And I saw sitting across from us a little boy about Daniel’s age.  I encouraged him to go over and play, and the two became fast friends: The other boy, Jonathan, was like Daniel’s Spanish-speaking counterpart.  They spoke different languages but played the same things the same way, had similar toys.

And it showed Daniel the value of learning Spanish, which he’s been working on with my software.  They both had lego guys, cars, DS game systems.   LOL

Day 2:

It’s funny that I just digitized one of Cugan’s Blue Öyster Cult tapes onto the computer, because this state reminds me of “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” with its mountains, hillbilly history and Lover’s Leap on Lookout Mountain.

Today we went to Gatlinburg, an hour from Knoxville, where Cugan’s parents live.  Kitschy establishments everywhere!  There’s even a “Hatfield vs. McCoy” dinner theater, the building made to look like a couple of hillbilly shacks.  They really play up the hillbilly thing in these parts.

But we weren’t there for the kitsch.  First we went to–what was it called, Bubba Gump Shrimp or something like that.  It’s a restaurant based on Bubba’s shrimp business, which later became Forrest’s, on “Forrest Gump.”

Not only do they have Forrest Gump stuff everywhere–quotes all over the tables, Gump memorabilia, menu items named after characters–but the server does movie trivia as you eat.  You put up a sign saying “Stop Forrest Stop” if you want service.  If you don’t, you put up a sign saying “Run Forrest Run.”

After that, we went to the aquarium.  Usual aquarium stuff, but the shark tank was set up with classical music and a moving sidewalk (very disorienting, especially with my nasty migraine, but if you’re feeling healthy it’s supposed to fill you with awe), and the tank actually went over your head.  You could look up and see sharks resting over your head and swimming over you.

The African penguin section allowed children to go in these tubes to see the penguins up-close, but still from protective glass, so of course Daniel went in there.  There were two petting areas: One for horseshoe crabs, the other for stingrays.

I got to pet a horseshoe crab, but the stingrays were just too far away.  It was hard to bend over the wall, and the stingrays always went just beyond my reach, though some of them did seem to come over to me on purpose.

And, of course, to get out of the aquarium you HAD to go through the gift shop.  It was actually a rule: You were blocked from going anywhere else but through the greatest part of the gift shop.  Yeah, we knew why that rule was there.  LOL

We’re talking Chattanooga tomorrow.  I hope to go to Lookout Mountain and the Civil War display there, along with the cave and Lover’s Leap.

I went there with my family as a kid, though I forget how old I was.  Possibly teens or late childhood.  I also remember going to the Coca-Cola museum; I’m not sure where exactly it is in Tennessee, but hope to show it to Daniel.

I must show him a cave before we leave this state!  Not only do I want him to see the awesomeness that is caves, but I haven’t seen a cave for probably 10 years.   Here in the mountains there are probably lots of caves!

Too bad the airsickness and migraine have combined to make the trip more grueling than it otherwise would have been.  It’s also very hot here right now: The car thermometer read 98 degrees at one point.  😛  I like cooler weather.  I don’t want to ever move down South or West.

Day 3:

Turns out Chattanooga is some four hours away, so unfortunately, we won’t be going there.

Today we went to the Cherokee Caverns, a cave near Oak Ridge where they did the Manhattan Project during WWII.  It’s not far from Knoxville, out in the wilderness.

History of Cherokee Caverns

They do public tours only four times a year, and today was the day for this time of year.  There were a bunch of people there.  A cute young guy led our group through the little cave.

It was pretty, and has some interesting history.  There is evidence that Cherokees used it, such as river cane torch marks (stoke marks) in places where they would have rubbed their torches to relight them, and they would have found flint and other things they needed in there.

The cave is also made into a Haunted Cave periodically, so they also have two manmade wonders: a “vortex tunnel,” a spinning black tunnel with colored spots which makes you feel disoriented, and an alligator-shaped formation.

It was used for filming during one of the Christy movies, when she was lost in a cave.  The guide showed us where the crew filled up a part of the cave with water and then drained it.

He also told us that during the 80s, a biker gang used it for parties and hanging out.  They damaged it in various places, such as one spot where some idiot shot a stalactite (did it hit him in the eye when it fell, I wonder?), another spot where they burned a bunch of tires as a last hurrah before leaving the cave, and tiremarks here and there.

Also, when one large floor was excavated to make the cave handicap accessible, they found some bear skeletons.

After that we went to the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum.  It wasn’t just a play area, but had actual museum pieces and log cabins to show how people used to live in the Appalachians, and how people lived who worked on the Manhattan Project.

Through this display, I learned why some of the Weather Channel people pronounce “Appalachians” so strange: In the North, it’s “AppaLAYshuns,” as we say it around here.  In the South, it’s “AppaLATCHans,” as they say it on the Weather Channel.

Daniel had a lot of fun playing with various displays, especially the toy boats and trains, and didn’t want to leave, but it was almost closing time.  We got caught in a sudden rainstorm on the way out.

The clerks at the Children’s Museum told us about the houses nearby, which Cugan’s dad asked about, saying they looked a lot alike.  They were used by the workers in the Manhattan Project–A houses, B houses, C houses, etc.–and are now private dwellings which people modify as needed.  To this day people refer to them as A houses, B houses, C houses, etc.

The government kept the town a secret until after WWII.  Workers on the Manhattan Project didn’t even know it had anything to do with the atomic bomb.

Day 4:

Today we visited the Museum of Appalachia near Knoxville.  It has relics and actual or replicated buildings from old Appalachian settlements.

With all the steep pathways and the heat and humidity, it’s not surprising that Daniel started to complain.  But it wasn’t surprising that they spent most of their time outside: The stifling buildings were even worse.

One hut, belonging to an old bachelor, was a teeny tiny room that just fit a bed, a stove and some other things.  A dorm room was palatial compared to this, even the closet-room belonging to a friend of mine who lived in the men’s dorm at Roanoke College.

One cabin belonged to Mark Twain’s parents, and was only a bit larger, with a loft.  Yet another cabin had large rooms and two stories, along with a richly-carved mantel.

There were peacocks running around and filling the air with their cries.  There were sheep and large roosters.  Inside the display buildings you could see various pieces used by actual mountain people from the late 1800s and early 1900s, from toys and beds to musical instruments, caskets, a hearse….

There was a tiny church, making you wonder how they could sit in that stifling room dressed in 19th-century Sunday best.  There was a one-room schoolhouse with two outhouses, one for boys and one for girls.

The outhouses were big enough to move around comfortably, though one-seaters, and could easily hold a coat and a water basin.  I always wonder about such things.

We stopped at the little restaurant/cafe for refreshment, and found Coke in old-fashioned 8-oz. glass bottles.

There was, of course, a hut with a still and other whiskey-making implements.   The write-up told about a guy called Popcorn Sutton, a mountain man who was famous for making moonshine.  The dates given were in the 2000s!  He died only two years ago!

So I asked, and was told that some people still live like this in the mountains, that these aren’t just relics from the past like the Galloway House.

After a little Googling it appears that there have been many improvements and modernizations in the rural areas of the region, there are now trailers and more modern houses and cars and schools and modern clothes and household implements, but the mountain people are still desperately poor.

So the same lack of running water and electricity, ramshackle houses, outhouses, poor medical care, and other such things still exist among many.  And they still carry on the culture and music of their ancestors.

Popcorn Sutton

Popcorn Sutton’s Family’s Blog

20/20’s “Children of the Mountains”

Mountains Of Substandard Housing Appalachia’s Poverty And Unemployment Make Even Ragged Homes Unaffordable.

In the evening, Cugan and I went on a little date by ourselves, first dinner at a restaurant then the latest Harry Potter movie.  On the way home, finally I could see the Appalachian mountains at night, a beautiful scene I haven’t seen since my family visited my brothers in North Carolina in 1990: the mountains black, lurking shadows against the dark gray of the night sky.

Day 5:

Today we went to Dollyworld, an amusement park which was bought out by Dolly Parton and made into a big marketing thing for her: her music playing everywhere, Dolly’s fashions sold in a shop, things like that.  The narcissism was amusing.

But there was lots to do, shops to visit, rides for Daniel, a candy shop, a train going through the park but also around the mountain with various replicas of hillbilly life/buildings (including a moonshine still) circa the 19th century.

There were also various shows; we went to a 40-minute musical with dancers, which went through local history from Cherokees to the Scottish-Irish settlers to the 19th century culture to Depression-era changes.  There were even 4 guys, playing Cherokees, who flew over the audience and ended up right over us on a stage contraption.  Daniel was amazed at that part.

Tomorrow we go home.

[Comment on original post here.]

Chased by Storm Chasers: South Dakota, 2001 (Repost from 2012)

I wrote this as an e-mail to friends and family on May 21, 2001:

Cast of characters: Nyssa, Cugan, Cugan’s brother M–, Cugan’s parents

We headed out from Wisconsin and made it to the hills of Mississippi.  We stopped in Burr Oak, Iowa at a tiny house which Laura Ingalls’ family once ran as a hotel.  They’d fit 3 people to a bed there, and the beds were no bigger than a double or full-sized bed.  And no, I’ve read that people actually were not shorter or smaller back then.

That night, Cugan and I watched cartoons (Superman, Popeye, Looney Toons) to a Led Zeppelin CD in his new Discman.  Apparently Zeppelin and old cartoons go to the same beat, because they were remarkably in sync.  Then when the cartoons ended, the last one said, “That’s all, folks”–and the CD ended.

Driving from the edge of South Dakota to Rapid City demonstrates the meaning of “miles and miles of miles and miles,” our favorite phrase during the trip.  And in much of that state and part of Wyoming, I often had a hard time finding more than one or two stations on my Walkman.

The prairies do have small, rolling hills, but that, cows, pigs, a herd of sheep, and farms are practically all there is.  Once we stopped at a scenic overlook, and it was, if I remember correctly, about 100 degrees according to the van thermometer!  The prairie is like a desert: hot in day, cold at night.  The cows would often gather around billboards, probably for shade.

Come noon, we wanted lunch but had a hard time finding it.  The towns are so small and far between, and some exits were blocked off by construction, so we finally had to stop after 1:00 in a tiny town called Murdo.

First we stopped at a Virginia’s Junction Restaurant, but not only was it a truck stop, but it was full and had a wait because of a Mother’s Day buffet (and because it was the only place around).  We figured we wouldn’t get back out for a long time, so we left.

In Murdo we found a little restaurant, Star, rated AAA, which was clean/good/only half-full.  They had delicious milkshakes (which everybody else changed their order to after I ordered one) and buffalo burgers, my first one ever.  It had a mild taste, slightly different from beef but not by much.  It was kind of curled up at the edges, and very thin, though 1/4 pound.

Now for tons more prairie, but at least we were full and Rapid City wasn’t much farther.  A sign outside Murdo boasted of 8 restaurants, but ours appeared to be the best.  Before we found Star, Cugan’s dad said some of the restaurants we passed looked “a little rough,” and one of them had a sign saying, “Welcome Bikers”!

We stopped at the Corn Palace, after much arguing between mostly the parents and M– about which way to go around some construction to get to it.  It was decorated outside with corn, as it or a similar building has been yearly for the past 100+ years, but there wasn’t much else to it.

It didn’t even have a lightswitch in the women’s bathroom.  Many looked, but no one found.  Some settled on going in the dark while someone held the door open, but I wasn’t that brave, deciding to wait for a gas station.

By the way, gas stations are far cleaner and better now than they were back when I traveled with my parents as a kid.  In those days, you always had to check for soap/toilet paper/towels/water, at least one of which was usually out.  Some were even filthy.  They seemed little better than a hole in the ground.

I don’t know if somebody cracked down with regulations or what, but these days, a gas station bathroom is generally as good as one you might find in a restaurant.  By the way, the Star Restaurant bathroom was small and old and had a sign saying “Flush twice,” but it was clean and well-furnished.

On our way to the Badlands, we stopped at an Amoco station/trading post that called itself the last chance for gas before the Badlands (a stretch of land that, according to the French, are “bad lands to cross; rocky outcroppings, starkly beautiful, and desert-like, sometimes used as a hideout by criminals”).  It had a sign out front that said, “Got gas?”  These words were surrounded by buzzards, snakes, a bison, and probably a few other such lovely creatures.

Once in the Badlands National Park, Cugan’s dad offered me his hat because the heat was baking my brains, despite my putting sunscreen even on my part.  It was 100 degrees!  Except for the occasional shade of juniper bushes, it was so hot (dry heat) that we had to walk slowly and guzzle water from the water bottles Cugan’s mom had so prudently supplied.

Though I didn’t think we’d get to the top, Cugan and I made it all the way around and up one step-filled trail.  We see why many people may have died of exhaustion out here on the wagon trains.

To my dismay, the fossil trail was closed that day, and we also didn’t have a chance to see the Petrified Forest.  At least we saw the Everything Prehistoric museum, which is so small it fits into one of those shops like you find along a main street, yet is world-renowned.

Later in the day, we went to this tourist mall called Wall Drug, born of a drugstore that attracted customers by offering free ice water.  I got a straw hat there so I wouldn’t have to keep borrowing hats to keep my brains from baking.  I need my brains.

We also saw two six-foot rabbits (not Harvey from the Jimmy Stewart movie), a jackaloupe, and other “animals” on display.  One was a bison, and those things could probably feed a whole Indian village: they’re huge.  The T-rex display, a life-sized T-rex which roared every 12 minutes, seemed corny but was surprisingly scary.

I also got a trilobite fossil, curled up in death, and a little display case for it.  They sell fossils and rocks and gemstones all over the place in South Dakota and Wyoming.

Then we watched the sun begin to set in the Badlands.  The fauna (not much flora) included red-headed ants, deer, and circling turkey buzzards.  (They circled us for a minute, but ha ha, we were young and strong and not about to drop.)

A group of storm-chasers, mostly young (they and their trucks looked like the ones in Twister), were also at the park either this time or the first time we were there.  Cugan’s dad asked M– if they were friends of his.

At the time, I just thought they were a group of ham operators like M–, and that that was the reason for the antennas on their trucks.  M– was keeping an eye on a group of clouds off in the distance.  They just looked like clouds to me, but he saw a storm.

We later found out that the storm chasers were also watching it, but were on the wrong side of it and missed it.  It even had baseball-sized hail.

The chasers got to the AmericInn hotel in Rapid City just after we did (a nice, spacious place with a guest laundry).  Cugan’s dad said to one of them, “We just saw you in the Badlands, didn’t we?”

The next morning, Monday, we had to go to Perkins because I guess they filled the breakfast room.  We joked about M– (who thinks he should’ve been a meteorologist) running off and joining the storm chasers.  He heard them use the word “ominous” and said to them, “Is there something I should be concerned about?”

Off to Deadwood we went.  It doesn’t have a whole lot besides bars and casinos, and that seemed to be where the tour trolley (more a bus than an old-fashioned trolley) took people.  It did have some interesting bits, though.

We parked at the visitor center, where each spot had a number and you bought a ticket for that spot.  Not everyone could get up the steep hill leading to the cemetery (Cugan called me a billy goat), so M– went back and got our van to drive us all up.  We also gave a ride to an elderly couple we’d met.

This cemetery is where Wild Bill Hilcock, a beloved preacher killed by Indians, Calamity Jane, a prostitute or madam “with a heart of gold,” a guy with Cugan’s dad’s name, and other interesting people were buried.  Some guys in hard hats were digging and doing things with machines; considering this was far too full and old a cemetery for new residents, I didn’t want to see where they were digging or why.

There was even a small piece of land available for sale at the edge of the hill, right next to a child’s grave.  We wondered why in the world anyone would want to sell or buy that land.  Cugan’s dad said a house built there would be haunted.  Somebody wondered if it was actually a plot for sale.  It didn’t even look like a house would fit there.  Some graves, usually children’s, were on the very edges of the hill.

When we got back to the visitors’ center, there were the storm chasers again–and one of them had taken our parking spot!  We went to Diamond Lil’s Bar and Grill and casino (owned by Kevin Costner) for lunch, and there they soon followed.

On the way out, we saw one at the bar and a group sitting at a table in the casino downstairs.  At least one saw us, too.  (Cugan’s mom said the young woman looked just like me.  I hear that a lot.)  Then after M– and his mom played a few minutes in the casino, we went back to the visitor center parking lot, and there they were, grouped outside the building.

“There they are again,” said Cugan’s dad in his West Virginia accent, and we waved and they smiled and waved back.  We joked in the van that if they followed us to Devil’s Tower now, we’d have to introduce ourselves and say, “We’re the disturbance you’ve been following,” or “Hi, we’re the harbingers of the Apocalypse” (that’s Cugan’s).  We also joked that being followed by storm chasers made us nervous–were they just touring, or was there a bad storm we were heading straight for?

By the way, the Black Hills do look black, covered as they are with pine trees.

A whole stretch of the road to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming had no road!  A flagwoman would stop us and we’d wait, then a truck with the sign on the back, “Pilot car/Follow me,” would lead us through past the road work.  There was so much road work in Wyoming and South Dakota that we couldn’t believe it.

Wyoming is also sparsely populated; one town, Alva, had only 50 people, and M– said the houses looked like they belonged to squatters–small, rundown.

Occasionally, here and in South Dakota, I’d even see outhouses in the hills.  One appeared to belong to an old, abandoned house (lots of those, too), but some seemed to belong to inhabited houses.  I don’t know if the outhouses are still in use or not.

Devil’s Tower, a lava plug over 800 feet high, is impressive.  Tons (literally) of rocks surround the base, and trails go around it.  I believe Cugan and I took part of the Tower Base Trail.  I often had to wait for Cugan, especially going downhill: I’d run with the momentum, while he’d go more slowly because of his bad knees.  He said I was like a fairy who’d run on ahead and then stop and wait for this lumbering monster following her.  We saw falcons or buzzards circle the hill and go to the crags up near the top.

After this, we went to the nearby prairie dog town, which covered a clearing on both sides of the road.  They’d frolic and look for food, and one liked to pose for M– when he clicked at it.  They clicked and barked, and squeaked like squeak toys.  If any of you have seen Blackadder III, they sounded like the squirrels that highwaywoman shot.

Two were even fighting.  Two kept sneaking up to each other, sniffing butts, and then running away again.  One appeared to bite or somehow touch the other one’s butt, and then got chased away.  Cugan bought a prairie dog doll, which became our mascot for the rest of the trip.

We did not see the storm chasers again, which was disappointing.

On Tuesday, we saw Mount Rushmore.  Many, if not most, of the rocks around the base seem to have come from the sculpting scraps; many have notches which were made while getting the rock ready for blasting.  The rocks around the trails have slate, red mudrock, granite, even mica.  There was even a tree which grew twisted.

I got a bottle of 24K gold flakes in a solution in the giftshop.  We then went to a nearby collection of stores and such, and ate in a “Ruby House Family Restaurant.”  It was decked all in red and had pictures all over the walls, one a nude from probably the 19th century.  It appears to have once been a brothel.  All the themed restaurants in South Dakota seemed to have displays of antiques, Old West clothes and other mementoes.

The hills contain gold mines–I saw doors to a mine which may have been abandoned–and shine in spots that are brown and exposed.  It could have been mica, though I wondered if it were gold, too.

After lunch, we went to the Black Hills Caverns.  Though it didn’t seem like much after Mammoth Cave (which I saw back in 1988), it was still interesting–and strenuous.  There were some pretty formations and crystals; some crystals looked like snow, and one, a River something-or-other flow, looked like caramel.

Our tour guide was a retired man who must have been in good shape, but did have to sit for a few minutes after each tour.  A little girl liked to boast that she didn’t have to worry about “headbangers,” or parts of cave walls that could bang your head, and voiced her opinions loudly.  She was cute.  At one point, she started crying “headbanger” as a kind of siren warning.

Once, Cugan’s mom got hit in the head with one of the “headbangers,” and joked to Cugan’s dad that he should’ve warned her.  Then she said something about her watching for these things, and he cried, “Oh, no, here comes the explanation.”  Then he jokingly spread out his arms and told the whole group (about 11 1/2 people, the 1/2 being the girl) that he was to blame.  On the way out, the tour guide counted the girl as 1/2, when he made sure everybody who went in, came out.

The TV feeds on cable in Rapid City on Mountain Time were all screwy.  Some stations run an hour before they even do in Eastern, some run at the same time they would if it were Central, some run half an hour to an hour and a half late, and some, like WB, run a full two hours later than they would on Central Time!

On Wednesday, we traveled the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park.  You have to drive because the animals can get dangerous if approached.  At first, we thought we’d see nothing, and joked about asking for our money back.  Cugan wanted to see a mountain lion, and kept saying, “Here, kitty, kitty.”

Then we saw pronghorn antelopes, a lone bison who was obviously male, several herds of bison, a herd of burros right next to one of the bison herds, prairie dogs, a bunny, and a woodchuck (who was crossing the road).  The bison/buffalo/whatever were mostly grazing, but several wallowed in the dirt.  A few, I was told, tried some X-rated action, but I didn’t see that.

At the prairie dog town, as we pulled over, one dog sprang up so far he almost could’ve fallen backwards, and barked a greeting at us.  A couple ran up close to the van, but still a few yards away.  Once, one let out a warning chirp and they dived: a hawk was overhead.  The sentinels then sat up a few minutes later and each faced a different direction, watching out for that hawk, which had flown back over the pine trees.

There was road work on the intersection with the highway near the end of the loop, and some buffalo were close by there, too.  A couple of people were outside; one or two were in trucks; I’m not sure if the workers halted work while the buffalo were there.

We then drove up to Coolidge Peak.  M– had to drive because his dad just couldn’t: those are some steep and narrow roads.  Coolidge Peak is a lookout point at the top of the Black Hills.  We were so high up that we could see the earth curve all around us.  Though the view up was gorgeous, everyone was so nervous that I kept my eyes on my journal on the way down.

We went to the Crazy Horse Memorial, a carving in a mountain, which is supposed to be bigger even than the one on Mount Rushmore, once the original sculptor’s descendants finish it a few centuries from now.  In the ’50s, an Indian chief asked him to carve it, to show that Indians have heroes, too.

Crazy Horse is to be shown on the back of a horse, pointing out toward the lands where his people’s dead were buried, illustrating his act of defiance when his lands were taken and somebody asked him derisively where his lands were.  “My lands are where my dead lie buried,” he said.

Casinos are everywhere in South Dakota, even in gas stations.  One was in a station which also included a Burger King.  I also saw some major fast food chains sharing buildings.

We stopped in DeSmet, another spot with an Ingalls house/Laura Ingalls museum.  It had bathrooms outside–marked Ma and Pa–and one house was the comfortable home where the Ingalls family retired soon after Laura married.

Another house was the little surveyor’s house where the family stayed for a winter when Laura was little.  To her, it was a mansion full of as much food as you’d find in a grocery store, provided by Pa’s employer.

Out back of the retirement house was a replica of the tiny, one-room schoolhouse where Laura had once taught.  It was no bigger than maybe a big bedroom or a living room.

M– got after Cugan once for playing with his straw, saying it was childish or something, but Cugan felt better when I told him my dad plays with his straws, too.  This is sort of related to this schoolhouse, because it had a display of pictures from Laura’s books, one of which showed Laura pulling a knife impaling a girl’s pigtail out of a desk.  The culprit, a boy, laughed.

Cugan didn’t understand what was going on, and I explained that boys liked to play with girls’ pigtails in those days.  My dad had often joked about boys dipping girls’ pigtails in inkwells.

We took a circular route back home over the next few days.  We drove through Walnut Grove, Minnesota, population I think about 700, but weren’t able to stop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.  Part of our route was even on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial highway, number 14.  We kept laughing because memorials to Laura were all over these states, and it was like seeing “George Washington slept here” signs all over the place.

We drove through Minneapolis, and I discovered that B96 of Chicago came in all the way up there, though nowhere else in between.  They have a great selection of stations there.

Up we went to the upper part of Wisconsin, where the Big Woods of Wisconsin still exist.  Cugan and I had a hotel room near Ashland that looked out over the bay of Lake Superior, and land stuck out on either side.

At night we could see city lights on the right side, and there were about three lighthouses shining.  Two lights, red and blue, belonged to a ship.  The shoreline glowed white in the faint city light.

In the morning, a goose family with both parents and five goslings swam along the shore, looking for food and occasionally coming on shore.  The goslings would lean over so far to grab for food under the water, sticking their butts up in the air, that they would almost fall all the way over.

We saw the waterfalls in that area.  The first was a bust, a tiny thing at the end of a mosquito-infested trail, reached after driving forever on a dirt road with no directional signs.  At least we saw a wildcat’s footprint.

The second was much better, Copper Falls and Blackstone Falls on Bad River (which looks like foaming root beer, as our breakfast waitress had remarked).  It had a bigger park with better-managed trails and fewer mosquitoes.

After hiking around the falls, Cugan and I had to wait for the others, so we swung on some swings for a while.  Cugan taught a pre-teen girl how to make a Zen garden in the sand, then showed his dad the same thing by drawing lines on the back of the now-filthy van.

The third stop was either Peterson, Patterson or Patteson Falls (there was some confusion about which name it was).  A short, dirt road led to it, and it seemed that it might be better than the first–until we stepped out of the van and into tent caterpillar webs on the trail.

They infested the place, so M– and his dad refused to go any further.  The caterpillars even covered the ground.  Some got into the van, and we kept finding them in there.  Some got on the van.  Some got smashed into the van as it drove around.  You could say we fled.

(I have always wondered if this was related to the tent caterpillar infestation in Fond du Lac that summer.)

Then we got home, and the story ends.